Everybody claims to hate playing politics. So why do so many people play the games? Business politics get in the way of productivity at every company on a daily basis.
Politics generally occur when there are competing priorities in play at the same time. You see it in congress when each congressman competes to get the best results (tax breaks, new roads, etc.) for the district he or she represents. All of this occurs while they pretend to do what’s best for the nation.
In business, every employee is working to make themselves look good in order to maximize their salary and status. At the same time, they pretend to do what is best for the company and/or the team they work for.
Ways to play office politics
Based on my observations over the years, I’ve seen politics come in three general categories.
Playing Not to Lose
This is one of the most common political plays because it involves the lowest risk. Managers are often faced with decisions that involve risk. For instance, they may face the opportunity to invest in a new computer system. The new system could provide major benefit to the company by increasing revenues, reducing costs or both. But there is extreme risk that the implementation could fail, with the result of costing the company money and making the manager lose his credibility.
It’s much safer to stay with the existing system and make no waves.
Consultants are often brought in to assist with large implementations like this. It’s a way to bring in experts and reduce the risk of failure. And if the project fails, the manager has the consulting firm as a built-in scapegoat – politics at play.
Causing Others to Lose
There’s an old saying: “There are two ways to have the tallest building in town. You can build the tallest building, or tear all the taller buildings down.”
A true competitor wants to win, but does her best to win fair and square. Others, who want to win at any cost, may not do whatever it takes to do their best. They take an easier way out and bring others down to make themselves look better. (Have you seen any political ads lately?)
An employee may throw someone under the bus by exposing a mistake or falsely attributing their own mistake to someone else just to make that person look bad.
The thinking behind this is that one doesn’t need to try hard to be good. They just need to make others look bad enough that they look better in comparison.
I’ve always wondered if they would just put forth as much effort at excelling as they did making others look bad, they could accomplish the same thing and make their company more productive.
Tit for Tat
If you’re thinking this is about deciding whether body art should go on selected body parts, you couldn’t be further off the mark.
Tit for tat is a term used in game theory which involves responding in kind to some action. In office politics this can be done positively and negatively.
It can be repayment for a misdeed. If someone throws you under the bus in a “causing others to lose” strategy, the gauntlet has been thrown down for you to do the same. This often results in a one-upmanship that can spiral out of control.
It can be done in a positive nature. If someone does something beneficial to you, you may respond by doing something to promote that person in kind. On the surface, this seems like a beautiful scenario where everyone lives happily ever after.
While it can reap positive results, there can be negative side-effects. Some people may do something kind for someone else with an ulterior motive. If someone has the authority or ability to do something to their advantage in the future, she may do that person a favor to create a situation of indebtedness. I scratched your back, now you need to scratch mine. And now that you mention it, there is something you can do for me.
In an effort to “get out of debt”, the person who owes the favor may make a decision that favors the other person, but not the general good.
Politics occurs when individual goals overtake the good of the whole. UCLA basketball coach John Wooden famously said, “It’s amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”
The problem is, everyone cares who gets the credit.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.